Ave Maria Grotto: Intricate reproductions of sights from all over the world

Destination Alabama

CULLMAN, Ala. — It’s the only Benedictine Monastery in the state of Alabama, but beyond the serene community you’ll find at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, there are intricate reproductions of sights from all over the world, that will take your breath away.

It’s the quietness that’s striking when you step into the peaceful world that is Ave Maria Grotto.

“This is a place of serenity it’s a place of peace, it’s a place where you can center yourself and really worship the lord, worship God,” said Roger Steele, Director of Ave Maria Grotto.

The ‘Grotto’ is filled with tiny recreations of monuments, churches, and famous buildings from around the world.

The structures were built small like the man who created and hand-built them, Brother Joseph Zoetl.

“He was a slight man 4 foot 10 weighed about 90 pounds,” said Steele. “Brother Joseph Zoetl who came over here from Germany in the 1890s was one of the original monks that came here.”

Each structure has a story that represents his life, but also society. It’s history in the form of cement and stone.

“It’s just made up of things he would find laying around that most people would think was junk and want to throw it away, but he used it to create art as a way to worship the lord,” Steele said.

The motto of Benedictines is ‘work and pray,’ and Steele said that’s the way the Brother Joseph chose to live his life. He shoveled coal and then would spend the rest of his time collecting materials to build the hundreds of structures that still remain in Cullman.

“He was a contemplative man and he came down here everyday for 50 years and built all of this,’ said Steele.

Majority of the buildings that he mimicked he never saw in person, just through postcards or photographs.

Grotto, is italian for ‘cave’ and is the theme of the artworks — grottos are places of prayer and solidarity, and almost everywhere you look at Ave Maria Grotto, you will see one.

What once was a place where Brother Joseph stacked and built and created, is now one of stillness and quiet.

“There are multiple places where you can just sit by yourself or you can just stroll through looking at the miniatures, looking at the monastery and really being able to contemplate what’s important in life,” he said.

Finding the important things in life in the artwork’s details – that may inspire something new in each visitor.


During the summer months, Ave Maria Grotto is open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Standard Admission Rates
Adult: $8
Students: $6
Children 5/under: Free
Seniors/AAA/AARP: $6
Military/Veterans: $5


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